All-Party Parliamentary Groups - Standards Committee Contents


2  The role of APPGs

6.  APPGs are not official Parliamentary bodies. They are groups of Members, who may come from both Houses, who may or may not be supported by outside organisations, which are established for a wide range of purposes. To register groups have to have 20 qualifying Members drawn from both Government and Opposition, and to abide by the rules.

7.  The Register of APPGs is divided into "subject" groups and "country" groups, but APPG activity ranges widely. Some were described as "agreeable semi-social, or entirely social, organisations"; some very occasional things "where you have a particular interest in some country or something you keep half an eye on developments in it";[5] others can be a means for Members to educate themselves, or campaigning organisations.

8.  Something of the range of activities was conveyed by Andrew Miller MP, describing two groups in which he was involved:

    In the case of the Hungary group, I got involved in that country when I was asked by Prime Minister Blair to help on the political issues around the accession of Hungary to the EU, and have maintained a strong relationship with that country, even though I have fundamental disagreements with its current Government. That group, like many country groups, is small and tends to be based on people's personal involvement in countries [...and] runs purely as a friendship organisation and has no budget whatsoever. One of our colleagues is the only hon. treasurer—well, I suppose there are lots of others—who has no money, income or expenditure, at his disposal.

    This organisation—the [Parliamentary and Scientific Committee]—was the first All-Party Group, created in 1939 to help the war effort. [...] That is the kind of work it has done, focusing on big scientific issues of the day over many years. There is also a huge amount of outreach with the annual competition [Science, Engineering and Technology] for Britain, which brings in hundreds of young scientists. [....] Obviously, there is a big budget associated with that. [...] It is quite a different beast.[6]

9.  What APPGs have in common is that they abide by the rules which enable them to be entered on to the APPG Register. Registered APPGs can use the term "parliamentary" in their title, may advertise their meetings on the All-Party Whip and have some priority in room bookings, although they will be displaced by official committees of either House if necessary.

10.  Witnesses agreed that APPGs provided an opportunity for backbenchers to set the agenda. Paul Birch, a technology entrepreneur and founder of all-party.org, was attracted by "the vast array of topics that they covered, the fact is that a lot of those were driven by public interest; they were quite dynamic—new ones were created and some were closed".[7] Ann Coffey MP stressed that APPGs allowed cross-party working, "because, in a sense, some of that very strict division between party lines is taken out, which enables you to work with Ministers, whatever the nature of the Government".[8] Barry Sheerman MP said that "anything that empowers us against the Whips or against the House administration and is about empowering Members of Parliament is a good thing".[9]

11.  There was also consensus that it was important that outside interests had access to Members and were able to share expertise.[10] Charities described the APPG on cancer as a "network for collaboration", not just between charities and politicians, but between various organisations working in similar fields.[11] Mark D'Arcy, Westminster correspondent for the BBC, told us that APPGs were "a very important network" and that they get "information through the outer defences of Westminster to the people who need it".[12]

12.  In summary, the case for APPGs is that they provide:

·   a forum for cross-party interaction which is not controlled by the whips;

·  a forum for interaction between parliamentarians in both Houses;

·  a forum for parliamentarians, academics, business people, the third sector and other interested parties;

·  a time and space for policy discussion and debate; and

·  a means for parliamentarians to set the policy agenda, which is normally dictated by the front benches and in particular, by the Government's legislative priorities.

13.  It has long been recognised that parliamentary work is not limited to participation in formal proceedings. We agree with the Speakers' Working Group that:

    [APPGs] can enable Members of both Houses, working together, to inform themselves about specific subjects, make common cause on issues, and — perhaps most importantly—respond to outside concerns and have direct contact with those who express them. We were struck by the commitment of Members, and those outside Parliament, to APGs and note how effective they can be in raising issues with the government.[....] At a time when politicians are felt by some to be remote we must not cut ourselves off from the wider world.[13]

Current regulation

14.  APPGs are already regulated by the House of Commons to ensure some transparency and propriety. The Register of All-Party Groups is the responsibility of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who has delegated oversight of the Register to the Registrar of Members' Financial Interests and the Assistant Registrar. The current requirements for APPGs are set out in Table 1.[14]Table1: Summary of Rules governing APPGs
Requirements that groups must meet to qualify for inclusion on the Register
1.  Membership must be open to all Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords.
2.  Must have at least 20 Members (each of whom must be a Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords), comprising: at least 10 Members who are from the same political party or parties as the government, and at least 10 who are not from the government party or parties (of whom at least 6 must be from the main opposition party).
3.  Must hold an inaugural election of officers advertised in advance on the All-Party Notices. Must elect a minimum of 2 officers, at least one of whom must be an MP. Registered Contact of group must be both an officer and an MP, and is the person nominated by the group as its main contact and as the person ultimately responsible for ensuring the group's compliance with the House's rules.
Information that groups must register
4.  Group's title, which must include the term Associate Parliamentary Group or All-Party Parliamentary Group and must not replicate title of an existing group.
5.  Brief statement of the group's purpose.
6.  Date of inaugural election of officers.
7.  Name and post held of each of group's officers.
8.  Names of the group's 20 qualifying members. (If a qualifying member informs the group that he or she no longer wishes to be a member of the group, the group must register the name of a suitable replacement within 28 days of the member resigning).
9.  Name and contact details of the MP who is the group's registered contact.
10.  Address of the group's website (if it has one).
11.  Name of any staff to the group who hold an APG security pass. Staff issued with an APG pass are required to register: any paid employment for which they receive more than 0.5% of the parliamentary salary; and any gift, benefit or hospitality they receive, if the gift, benefit or hospitality in any way relates to or arises from their work in Parliament and its value is over 0.5% of the parliamentary salary in the course of a calendar year.[15]
12.  Financial or material benefits whose total value of £1500 or more in a calendar year from the same extra-parliamentary source (must be registered within 28 days). For financial benefits register the amount and donor; for material benefits register the donor and a description of the benefit. Any further donation received, whether singly or cumulatively, from the same source in the same calendar year should be registered if its value exceeds £500.
13.  Name and website of any organisation that is acting as the group's secretariat:

·  If a consultancy organisation acts as the group's secretariat, the name of any client specifically paying the consultancy to act as the secretariat. (The consultancy must either publish its full client list on its website or else agree to provide such a list, on request).

·  If a charity or not-for-profit organisation acts as the group's secretariat it must agree to make available, on request, a list citing any commercial company which has donated either as a single sum or cumulatively more than £5,000 to the charity or not-for-profit organisation in the course of the 12 months prior to the month in which the request is made, otherwise the charity or not-for-profit organisation is not allowed to act as the group's secretariat.

·  If someone is acting in a personal and unpaid capacity as the group's secretariat and if the provision of this service constitutes a benefit worth £1,500 or more per calendar year to the group, register the person's name and contact details.

14.  Register any affiliation held by country groups to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or Inter-Parliamentary Union.
15.  Any registrable change (ie any addition or deletion required under the rules to the group's Register entry) must be put by the group in writing to the Commissioner's office within 28 days of the change (eg the receipt of a donation) occurring, so that the entry may be updated.
16.  Unless the group re-registers within two months from the date when Parliament first meets after a general election, it ceases to exist then and is removed from the Register.
Requirements groups must meet to remain registered (apart from registration requirements)
Membership
1.  Group must maintain a comprehensive and up-to-date membership list.
2.  Any Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords may join the group; anyone else may only join at the discretion of the group.
3.  The group may charge members a subscription fee if it chooses. The maximum subscription fee chargeable to a Member of either House is £5 per year. Fees for any other person or organisations are therefore at the discretion of the group.
Meetings
1.  The group must meet at least twice per calendar year. An AGM counts as one meeting. The other meeting must be held on a different day from the AGM to qualify as a separate meeting.
2.  The group's officers are responsible for ensuring that the group complies with the House's rules on the use of parliamentary facilities. Meetings should mostly be held at Parliament and on a day when both Houses are sitting. Annual General Meetings (AGMs) must be held at Parliament and on a day when both Houses are sitting.
3.  Group must hold an AGM every 12 months at Parliament and on a day when both Houses are sitting; advertise the AGM in advance on the All-Party Notices; hold an election of officers at the AGM; register the result of the AGM by whatever deadline the group has been given by submitting an amended copy of the group's Register entry signed by an officer.
4.  Ordinary meetings (ie any meeting other than an AGM or a meeting at which officers are elected) need not be advertised on the All-Party Notices, but AGMs and any other meeting at which officers are elected must be.
5.  The quorum for any meeting of the group is three members, at least one of whom must be an officer of the group. Each of the three must be a Member of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
6.  Any Member of either House may turn up and speak at any meeting of the group; anyone else may only attend if invited by the group.
7.  Any Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords may vote at any meeting of the group—unless a subscription is charged, in which case the group may decide to allow only paid-up members of the group to vote. Meetings of the group must never be advertised anywhere as 'public meetings' as this may cause security problems.
8.  Apart from the voting rights cited above, there are no rules on the process by which officers are nominated or how they are elected at the meeting, so procedures may vary from group to group.
9.  The form, content and distribution of minutes is a matter for the group, except that the group must keep sufficient records to enable it to prove that every meeting of the group is quorate and that the group meets at least twice each calendar year.
Communications
1.  It is important that groups distinguish themselves from committees of the House in their activities, the language they use and the way in which their reports are presented, so that they do not appear in the public mind to be select committees. The group's publications should not give the impression that the group has been appointed by the House or is part of its official structure.
2.  Groups may use the Crowned Portcullis on their official stationery, reports and websites provided that it is appropriate to demonstrate a connection with the House in this way, and provided that there is no risk that the use of the Crowned Portcullis might suggest that the group or its communications have the authority of the House.
3.  Group publications (e.g. reports, press notices) should make clear who authored them, name the group's secretariat, and name any body that sponsored the production of the publication concerned (eg by meeting associated printing costs).
4.  Group websites using the Crowned Portcullis must carry a disclaimer to make it clear that the House of Commons does not take responsibility for the content of that website.
5.  Group's website (if it has one) should specify any external sponsors and secretariat.

15.  Despite the extensive regulation already in place, concerns remain. The Speakers' Working Group noted:

    concerns have been expressed about the potential combined effect of the involvement of outside interests and misconceptions about the groups' status.[16]

16.  The concerns are fed by the sheer number of APPGs. Despite the fact APPGs need to be reconstituted after each general election, and will be removed from the Register if they do not comply with the registration requirements, there is a clear upward trend both in the absolute numbers of APPGs, and in the number of groups registering benefits.
Figure 1: Total number of APPGs[17]

17.  This trend raises the question of whether APPG work may "drown out" the work of official committees of the House. Still more seriously, it reinforces concerns about the extent to which Members are in fact driving the work of APPGs, and gives rise to fears that APPGs may lend themselves to improper lobbying activity.

Lobbying and Influence

18.  While we do not underplay the concern and irritation which the confusion between APPGs' work and the work of formal select committees can cause, the greater concerns expressed to us were about lobbying and influence. The Speakers' Working Group noted that in the results of their survey of Members 48 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that APPGs were prone to be manipulated by public affairs and lobby groups for their own purposes. Accordingly, we devoted much of the inquiry into exploring whether APPGs were in fact being manipulated, and the risks they posed to the reputation of the House.

19.  Whether or not APPGs are an effective route for lobbying, the Committee recognises, as Ann Coffey MP stated in her evidence to the Committee, that:

    Lobbying is part of the parliamentary process, and it is right that people from outside feel that they can contribute to the democratic decisions that are made. It is the strength of democracy.[18]

Parliament should not exist in a bubble. Indeed, the House of Commons Outreach service identifies APPGs as one way in which members of the public and campaigning groups can find Members likely to support them.[19] The challenge is to make sure that such lobbying as is permitted is appropriate. Whatever the rules, it is always possible for there to be improper lobbying. Nonetheless our evidence suggested that even as the system currently stands, the risks that APPGs are an effective route for improper lobbying, or that they are controlled by external organisations rather than MPs, are relatively low.

20.  APPGs are not necessarily an effective way to lobby for particular policies or interests. Mark D'Arcy noted that someone had told him that "if anyone was going round touting the idea that All-Party Groups have genuine influence on Government policy, they should be done for fraud, not for corruption".[20] This was echoed by Douglas Carswell MP who said that parliamentarians were often:

    baffled at the gravitas awarded to All-Party Parliamentary Groups. We look at them and we realise that many of them are of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. We know that lobbyists are of very little influence; often, on particular cases, lobbyists are of absolutely zero influence.[21]

21.  Nonetheless, despite his view of their effectiveness, Douglas Carswell MP described some APPGs as "front organisations", which failed to take a diverse range of opinions:

    my real concern is, in some cases, who provides the secretariat. I think some All-Party Parliamentary Groups cease to be a group of MPs coming together as members of the legislature to develop a common position on something, which is a good thing; there is a difference between that and an outside organisation running an APPG in order to impress their clients and to get fat fees for supposedly influencing public policy.[22]

22.  The impression that Members do not control APPG activities may be increased by the system in which every APPG has to have 20 qualifying members, and only those Members' names are published. Many Members are on the list of qualifying members for multiple APPGs. The (incorrect) assumption that all qualifying Members will play some part in directing and controlling an APPG gives rise to concerns that those Members who appear on a great many APPGs will be unable to scrutinise their activities effectively. In fact, many witnesses told us that whatever the perception, parliamentarians did in fact control APPG activities. While there could be dialogue between MPs and external supporters of an APPG about its programme to which external supporters would bring both expertise and their own opinions, the final decisions rested with Members, particularly the group's officers.[23]

23.  It is notable that APPGs meet more frequently than some reports suggested. Only a minority of the groups who responded to our questionnaire simply satisfied the minimum requirement to remain on the Register by meeting two times a year and 33.8 per cent of groups met five or more times in the last 12 months.
Figure 2: Number of meetings held by APPGs in the last 12 months[24]

FINANCIAL SUPPORT

24.  Even though the effectiveness of individual APPGs may depend on the force of their arguments and the commitment of the parliamentarians who are involved in them the perception that they provide a conduit for lobbying could be damaging. In evidence to the Committee Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said that "the way it is perceived by the public is that outside interests can buy influence and access to parliamentarians".[25]

25.  The rules on APPGs allow any organisation, including charities, companies, not-for-profit-groups and consultancies, to give financial and material support to APPGs. The concern has been that by providing this support, certain external groups have access to MPs and through them can influence parliamentary debates or even Government policy. The concern is not simply about commercial access to Parliament; charities' involvement in APPG work has also been raised in evidence with us.[26]

26.  While APPGs can be funded by a small number of external bodies or individuals, some seek to put distance between the APPG and those who support it and/or to draw on a wide range of supporters. For example, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism receives funding, as declared, from the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism Foundation (PCAAF), which is a registered charity. We were told that Policy Connect was established to support certain APPGs in a way which ensured Members were in charge, and that the organisation sought funding on the principle of "safety in numbers".[27]

27.  It is also important not to overstate the extent to which APPGs are supported by external organisations. 49.8 per cent of the respondents to our survey received no external support, and only 23.1 per cent received benefits other than secretariat support. Figure 3: Breakdown of APPG support from external bodies[28]


The secretariat support provided to APPGs was frequently modest: 85.1 per cent received no support or fewer than six hours of secretariat support per week and only 3.9 per cent of respondents received more than 26 hours of support a week.Figure 4: Secretariat hours provided by external body (per week)[29]


APPGs used the benefits they received in a variety of ways, supporting a range of events, from panel discussions (Women in Parliament) and conferences (Cancer) to working dinners and breakfasts (Gardening and Horticulture and Housing and Planning), reports[30] or report launches. One of the largest events is the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee's SET for Britain event, in which young researchers present their research to Parliamentarians.Figure 5: How funding and benefits are used by APPGs[31]

28.  Douglas Carswell MP proposed a simple solution to the twin problems of the proliferation of APPGs and the concerns about outside influence: that APPG activities should be funded through Members' staffing allowances. A Member who wished to support an APPG could devote, say, £1,000, of his or her staffing allowance to that purpose.[32] His suggestion was opposed by Andrew Miller MP, who considered this would simply not raise the necessary resources for a body like the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which is funded through subscriptions from members who range from individuals to scientific bodies.[33] The most recent financial statement for the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee shows that just over 72 per cent of their expenditure is on staffing (£57, 438),[34] so devoting a proportion of a Member's staffing allowance to APPG work could, in this case, "bankrupt [the Member] personally".[35]

CONCLUSION

29.  One response to the concern about lobbying is ensuring that there is greater knowledge of what APPGs do, and of how they are effective. It was clear from evidence, and from our own experience, that the effectiveness and status of an APPG depends on the commitment of the politicians involved, and the force of their arguments, not on external lobbying. As Mark D'Arcy said:

    Where you have something that seems to be genuinely a quite impressive all-party attempt to get to the bottom of an issue, to come up with good policy ideas—like the cycling group recently—that is something I would be very interested in going and reporting on. Where it is clearly an amen chorus for some obvious commercial interest, I do not honestly think that that many people are that impressed by its antics.[36]

30.  Even so external funding, no matter from what source, imports a degree of risk. Westminster insiders may be able to distinguish between the "amen chorus for obvious commercial interest"[37] and policy driven groups, but those outside the system may be less able to do so. Charities and campaign groups may wish to ensure that their view reaches Members as much as commercial organisations do. That said, we have no reason to doubt the Chief Executive of Macmillan's claim that his organisation considered supporting the APPG on Cancer as "a bit of a duty on the likes of us to do it—because we can".[38] It would be naive to think that all the organisations supporting APPGs do so entirely for altruistic reasons or as a contribution to corporate social responsibility; it would be over-cynical to assume that APPGs are supported only because they directly advantage the organisation giving support.

31.   The fact that APPGs can draw on a variety of funding, including external support, brings significant benefits as well as risks. It enables them to carry out proper research, to network and to conduct public information events. While we agree with the Speakers' Working Group that "APPGs must not be seen as enabling outside interests to 'buy the logo' of Parliament'',[39] we do not believe it would be proportionate to ban external support. We agree that Parliament should not be used as a way for lobbyists to impress their clients. Nonetheless it is important that the response to these fears is proportionate. In the main, our witnesses considered the interplay between parliamentarians and those from wider society to be beneficial. Ultimately, we consider the best safeguard against abuse is a system which ensures that APPGs are controlled by parliamentarians and which requires appropriate financial transparency about both the support APPGs receive, and their use of such support. We make recommendations on these points below.


5   Q 23 Back

6   Q 182 Back

7   Q 94 Back

8   Q 149 Back

9   Q 45 Back

10   Q 116 [Alexandra Runswick] Back

11   Qq 73-74 Back

12   Q 23 Back

13   Speakers' Working Group on All-Party Groups, Report to the Speaker and Lord Speaker, June 2012, para 2 Back

14   This summary is based on guidance and rules in: House of Commons, Guide to the Rules on All-Party Groups, March 2012 Back

15   Overtaken by the withdrawal of APG passes Back

16   Speakers' Working Group on All-Party Groups, Report to the Speaker and Lord Speaker, June 2012, para 7 Back

17   Speakers' Working Group on All-Party Groups, Report to the Speaker and Lord Speaker, June 2012 Back

18   Q 164 Back

19   House of Commons, Get your voice heard: a guide to campaigning at Westminster, available at www.parliament.uk Back

20   Q 3 Back

21   Q 125 Back

22   Q 116 [Mr Carswell) Back

23   Q 157 Back

24   Figures from the Committee's joint survey with the Administration Committee. Raw data: Less than 3-69; 3-5-100; 5-10-69; and more than 10-17. Back

25   Q 126 [Alexandra Runswick] Back

26   For example see Ev w3. Back

27   Qq 46-47 Back

28   Figures from the Committee's joint survey with the Administration Committee. Raw data: any other pre-existing body-87; foreign government-1; No external support-127; no response-4; trade association-34; and trust set up for purpose-2. Back

29   Figures from the Committee's joint survey with the Administration Committee. Raw data: none-156; 1 hour-38; 2 to 5 hours-23; 6 to 15 hours-21; 16 to 25 hours-7; 26 to 37 hours-7; and 37+ hours-3. Back

30   Support for research and reports would also be provided through secretariat services. Back

31   Figures from the Committee's joint survey with the Administration Committee. Raw data: admin-1; events/dinners-36; none-180; research/reports- 8; social-10; and travel-20. Back

32   Q 130 [Mr Carswell] Back

33   Q 193 Back

34   The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, Financial Statements for the year ended 31 December 2012 Back

35   Q 193 Back

36   Q 22 Back

37   Ibid. Back

38   Q 74 Back

39   Speakers' Working Group on All-Party Groups, Report to the Speaker and Lord Speaker, June 2012, para 7 Back


 
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Prepared 29 November 2013